If Malcolm Gladwell did not exist, we probably would have to invent him. In his third book, Gladwell continues to demonstrate his facility for taking often obscure sociological and psychological data and theories and spinning them into an engaging popular work. What distinguishes OUTLIERS from its bestselling predecessors, THE TIPPING POINT and BLINK, is that at its heart lies a passionate argument for radically redefining our understanding of what makes people successful in a way that suggests how to create opportunities for many who might not otherwise taste its rewards.
“Outliers,” by Gladwell's concise definition, are “men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary.” But he’s quick to reject the myth of the self-made man (for some odd reason the examples of outliers in his book are almost exclusively male). Contrary to our cherished notion that “success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all,” Gladwell argues that these extraordinary people “reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.”
What makes Gladwell’s work so entertaining and his central message so easy to grasp is his ability to muster arresting examples --- some well-known and others arcane --- to illustrate this thesis. People familiar with the story of the Beatles’ early career will recall the tales of the years they spent toiling in obscurity in seedy German clubs, but according to Gladwell those endless gigs afforded them the crucial opportunity to accumulate the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to attain world class expertise. He tells a similar story of Bill Gates, fortunate enough, in eighth grade, to have access to a time sharing computer that allowed him to hone his programming skills.
Then there are the accidents of birth, highlighted in the story of Joe Flom, the New York attorney who almost singlehandedly created the field of corporate takeover law. Flom wasn’t simply fortunate to be the son of immigrant Jewish parents who demonstrated an intense work ethic in the garment industry; he and several of the other titans of that field happened to have been born in the early 1930s, a “demographic trough” that ensured they would have attention lavished on them by the educational system and would face relatively less competition when they entered the job market.
The benefits of such accidents are demonstrated in other fields of endeavor. Reflecting his Canadian heritage, Gladwell explains why some 40 percent of standout hockey players are born between January and March. The fact is that the cutoff date for entry into hockey leagues is January 1st, and thus the older the player the more likely he is to manifest physical superiority that will ensure selection for all-star teams, thereby securing better coaching and all the advantages that help advance an athletic career.
The second half of OUTLIERS is devoted to a discussion of cultural phenomena that contribute to success or increase the likelihood of failure. In an intriguing discussion of what he calls the “ethnic theory of plane crashes,” Gladwell describes how something known as the “Power Distance Index” --- how much a particular culture values and respects authority --- helped account for the abysmal safety record of Korean Air in the 1980s and ’90s, as the undue deference shown by junior members of flight crews to their superiors produced disastrous results.
Gladwell doesn’t leave us without at least one practical prescription for overcoming such cultural handicaps to create a new and more inclusive model of success. He describes New York City’s remarkable KIPP (“Knowledge Is Power Program”) Academy, the prototype for some 50 such schools across the country. There, children from blighted neighborhoods are exposed to extended school hours, intensive academic and enrichment programs, and, perhaps most dramatically in our educational system, shortened summer vacations. The results are striking: 90 percent of the participants earn scholarships to private or parochial high schools and 80 percent attend college.
“To build a better world,” Gladwell concludes, “we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success --- the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history --- with a society that provides opportunities for all.” More than a collection of factoids fit only for cocktail party consumption, OUTLIERS is a provocative, consistently engaging, occasionally amusing work that has the potential to change the way we view the world, perhaps even help change the world itself.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 24, 2011